CS on Air in collaboration with Women Techmakers - Interview with Beryl Nelson

Uploaded by eduatgoogle on 17.01.2013

Hi welcome to CS on air in association with Women Techmakers
apologies for starting a little bit late we had a few technical issues there.
This is the first in the series of informal interviews with Google engineers
to learn what motivated them to enter the field of computer science and what excites them about it
I'm pleased that we have got Beryl Nelson joining us today from the Krakow office in Poland
and we've also got Lynette Webb here from the London office.
So Beryl, just to start off with can you tell us a little bit about your role at Google
and your career in engineering in general.
Sure, thanks for hosting me as well
I'm currently working on a team that builds infrastructure that is used to
to power basically
everything that happens at Google.
just prior to this until very recently, I was working on a team that
has the search back end, so
this was
really rewarding because everybody I know
would type in Google searches and I was part of
working on that
My role as an engineering manager means that I have to be an engineer who
also is able to manage people and managing people in this case means
making sure that
people are motivated and that we get the best ideas out of everyone to get
great impact results. It doesn't mean telling people what to do
at all, it's quite the contrary. It's getting the best out of everyone
because we've
a lot of talented engineers
My path into computing was not straight
I originally studied mathematics but I came into computing because
after my masters which was in genetic biochemistry
I was invited into a symbolic computation lab
I worked many years in languages, I took
about seven years off when we moved to japan when my twins were small
and then I worked on a
project as um
it was doing an automatic integrated circuit tester for image sensor chips
the kinds of chips you'd use on your cell phone camera
I've worked in a lot of different kinds of applications
but having a good grounding in basic fundamentals
makes it possible for you to move from one subject to another and its really
fun and interesting
So I should say when I was hired at Google
I was living in India. I lived in India for six and a half years also
What for you was really the hook that, that kind of
got you started in computer science, that kind of really grabbed you as seeing this
as something that you would love to do?
Well, as I said I studied mathematics but my father is an electrical engineer and
he said I think you'd like being an engineer, so I took some classes
partly to
make him feel better, right
but one of those was a computer science class taught by Joe Weizenbaum
Joe Weizenbaum was
uh... really a visionary he built
this really amazing, um
artificial intelligence program before
we had the term artificial intelligence practically. It was very simple...
it just
would answer questions and permute some of your words
like a psychoanalyst would
and it turned out to be really effective, people personified the computer
this was a man who could really inspire you you so because I really enjoyed that
even though i studied mathematics and biology I took other courses
what I've found really motivating for me is that the kinds of problems you
can solve
are fun and interesting and exciting. Sometimes
when i was working in languages
they've reminded me of
the mathematics kind of problems that i liked when we were performing...
solving um
not just a
problem but
doing these formal proofs.
and I liked the fact that we're building things that we can use because
I feel that I'm a maker, like
one of my hobbies is that
at the moment in our summer vacations I and my twin daughters are building
instruments at a violin
workshop in Cambridge
so my twins are building twin violins and i'm building a viola
I built the kids a doll house, I've made them dolls
when I was young I did a lot of clothing and cooking
various kinds of needle point
I think there's a lot of
analogy between an artist, what an artist thinks about
creating a physical object
that's kind of an expression, and the way that a good computer scientist or
programmer thinks about the way that they create
uh... what kinds of programs that solve really interesting problems
The most exciting
problems I've solved I would say is
one is the
the first
version of
Common LISP which was
the first standardisation attempt at the language
another one was a job before Google I was working on a
to get truth in healthcare data which is
a very very hard problem
but ethically very sound
working in google search everybody knows what you doing but
although many people like
applications that you can put on a mobile phone and things where you can see
I really liked the underlying infrastructure, I find the kinds of problems
that you solve
that are close to the machine are really interesting and satisfying for me.
Why do you think computer science is such a good thing to study and
potentially such a great option for a career?
there are two reasons i think that are primarily
active right now at least in my mind
One is that you can apply
computer science and programming techniques to solve many kinds of
problems. So for example my older daughter just finished
a masters in
cognitive neuroscience and she did it fieldwork in Namibia studying dolphin
behaviour. To write up her thesis and some papers she had to do some
it's sophisticated analysis on some of the data that they collected
and she had to learn some programming in R
to do some statistical analysis for this
There's so many kinds of problems to which you can solve computing...
you can apply computing techniques to help you
generating interesting analysis, you see it in
studies of social science, you see it in
building construction, you see it in simulating
disease control, there's so many problems you can apply it to.
Now the second reason I think it's a really nice field to be in is that it's
wide open
in the sense that they are so many opportunities right now that
it gives you a lot of flexibility in your life
I've lived in five countries and have worked in four
and in part
this is because
having some good fundamentals I can
I can try out new
areas and get jobs in interesting places
and in a more
strictly defined
field it
it can be more difficult to get that flexibility to have a really
varying life
... So Beryl...
what's your advice for someone at school today who's thinking about pursuing a career in computer science
how do they work out if its something that they would be good at and be interested in.
That's a really good question because
there are a lot of ways into computer science actually and some computer
scientists like
didn't actually
by saying i'm going to be a computer scientist
some people
prefer to to get involved in programming early and
that is a valid way to start you can try to solve problems that
you're particularly interested in
programming tools and there are lots of languages and platforms available
for beginners and for more advanced
these days
but programming
is something that you can do with ... without actually
studying formal computer science and studying more formally the
kinds of algorithms you can use and so on can give you a lot more power, it gives
you a basis on which you can scale more deeply
so in order to be successful you have to be really motivated, you really need
to love the problem you are trying to solve
and it's really important to find people who
can mentor you and can work with you to help you learn how to solve this problem
because there's so many different ways you can solve any particular problem
it's much easier to learn if you have a community around you of people who
are also interested in that problem and that's one of the things I really
like about my career
I work with
really interesting people
who are intelligent and motivated and
we can work together to solve
interesting and hard problems
and just one last question you mentioned that you've got twin daughters I think
and you know it's no easy feat bringing up twins, how have you managed to juggle
your career in computing with raising a family
Well there are many ways to do this. I have three daughters, my older one is the one who just
finished the masters and she is starting a
PhD this week
in neuro physiology in Dusseldorf
and the twins are seventeen
the most important thing
to do when you're thinking about having a family is choose your partner wisely
the kind of
support you get at home makes all the difference in deciding what kinds of
things you can do
now the way that we managed is that my husband is academic
also in computer science and I am in industry
went my older daughter was born I went to half time work and we basically
never saw each other, one of us was always home with the child, right
and when my twins were born we continued that kind of muddle
but when we moved to Japan I just quit totally
my twins were babies then and the older one was five
I took time off from
altogether, when the twins were in first grade I was invited into a company,
I worked part-time
In india
i had
a number of different models. I worked
uh... full-time in companies
I had a job I was working from home
so I've done
many of the kinds of things that you can think of
you know leaving work and coming back
part-time work, working from home
and there are advantages to all of them
the most important thing is that
you and your partner are able
to agree and what kinds of risk you're willing to take
and what to invest in
Wow, thanks very much Beryl, it's good to hear that CS has lead you towards
a flexible job
so yes thanks very much for joining us today Beryl and Lynette as well there in London
and for all those that have joined the broadcast, if you want to find out more about the Women
Techmakers series you can go to developers.google.com forward slash
women dash techmakers
and we'll be back next week with another interview
with Mandy Waite, who's a developer advocate in London
and all of those details will be advertised on the G+
Google in Education Page
ok so thanks very much have a great afternoon Beryl and Lynette
Ok Bye